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English 3600: Literary Theory: Evaluating sources

A research guide designed to help you successfully navigate your literary research for the course assignments.

Why and how do you evaluate sources during research?

Why do you evaluate sources? Why can't you just use whatever you find on the Internet about a topic? Consider these reasons:

  • How likely is it that your reader is going to consider your sources and ideas believable?
  • If your reader can prove your source was lying or using inaccurate information, what does that mean for your credibility?
  • In a world where anyone can say or write whatever they want on the Internet, why should anyone take Internet information at face value?
  • Even trusted sources like academic journals or academic publishers can fail to uphold their own standards for credibility, accuracy, and supported research.

So how do you, just starting out in college, have any hope of figuring out how valid information is? Here's a system to help. It's called CARS and here are the dictionary definitions of each of its components:

  • Credibility: able to be believed; convincing; capable of persuading people that something will happen or be successful
  • Accuracy: the quality or condition of being true, correct, or exact; freedom from error or defect; precision or exactness; correctness
  • Reasonableness: agreeable to reason or sound judgment; logical
  • Support: something that serves as a foundation, prop, brace, or stay

Below you can check out how each of these components applies to your research.

Credibility

  • Is this peer reviewed?
    • This will only be the case for scholarly journal articles and books, so it's important to consider
  • Is there other evidence of quality control, editing, and solid production value?
    • Red flags: Typos, spelling errors, grammatical errors, out-of-date design of website, etc.
  • Are the author’s credentials listed with education and affiliations mentioned?
    • PhD, MD, EdD, MBA, MFA, etc. and where they earned their degrees and/or where they currently work
  • Does the content come from a known or respected authority?
    • This might require some research online or you may have heard of the author, the publisher, etc. (For example: New York Times, Oxford University Press, National Institute of Health, etc.)
  • Does the source and the content have support of professional organizations, professional associations, universities, research institutions, governmental entities, etc.?
    • As you'll see later, it is also important to research this and see if you can find out who is paying for the research (you're looking for a conflict of interest).

Accuracy

When evaluating a source, you want to be able to find out when the information was published or when it was revised. The information should also be based in fact not opinion. Other questions that you might ask include:

  • How detailed is the information and how exact is it?
    • For example: if they use statistics, do they provide precise numbers or make generalizations (the majority, a few, etc.)?
  • Is the information comprehensive or is it missing important details?
    • For example: if they use statistics, do they provide all of the relevant statistics and the context? (Their bibliography should provide the source of their statistics).
  • Is it one sided or does it explore the topic from multiple perspectives?
    • Opposing viewpoints should be represented
    • Conflicting information should be addressed and considered
  • Is the language vague or overly general?
    • Words to watch out for: always, majority, some, throughout history, never, etc.

Reasonableness

If information is objective it will be grounded in facts and logic, not be influenced by feelings or emotion. The opposite of objective information is subjective information. Subjective information is based upon opinion, feelings, and emotion and is often lacking reasonableness.

Reasonableness also refers to information that is fair and balanced. There should not be a conflict of interest and it will lack bias or spin. Questions to ask include:

  • Is the language used excessively and/or exclusively positive or negative?
  • Is the author insulting someone or certain ideas?
  • Does the author include sufficient examples from multiple sides of an issue or an idea?
  • Who is paying for the publication of this information?
    • Red flag: company pays for research that supports information favorable to their business (Coca Cola paid for research to say soda does not cause obesity, tobacco industry paid for research to say cigarettes are not addictive/harmful, pharmaceutical company pays for research on its own medications, etc.)
    • Red flag: a major university donor who works at a company funds research, lab space, or facilities at the university

Support

Seek out sources in the resource that uphold the claims made in the information you are evaluating.

  • Are the claims presented to you substantiated and corroborated?
  • Are they backed with evidence and research?
  • Does the information come from an authority on the topic making it authoritative and reliable as a result?
    • Red flag: All or majority are Internet sources, especially blogs and newspapers
    • Red flag: No books from academic presses (Oxford University Press, University of Chicago Press, etc.)
    • Red flag: No scholarly or academic journal articles
    • Red flag: No variety of sources and/or author quotes their own work more than the work of others
  • Is there documentation supplied to the reader to support the information and the claims that are posed?
  • A source that provides convincing evidence for the claims made can also be triangulated (two other credible sources support the findings.)